The Moral Economy of the Twenty-First Century Debtor: Revisiting E.P. Thompson in an Online World

by Liam Stanley, Joe Deville, Johnna Montgomerie

As an emerging form of ‘everyday politics’, online debt forums provide space for debtors to share tips and advice, offer moral and emotional support and indirectly sow the seeds of collective action.

First published: 01 March, 2015 | Category: Activism, Class, Economy, Politics

The shift towards austerity following the crises of 2008 and beyond is considered by many to be the most important economic, cultural and political shift in contemporary Britain. There is a widespread sense that simultaneous household and state deleveraging is required to bring down debt attributed to pre-2008 credit-fuelled private and public profligacy. Yet it is the poorest people in society who are increasingly dependent upon credit in order to manage their everyday lives and improve their life chances. With debt and a sense of collective guilt central to popular narratives of the financial crisis – that reckless borrowing from sub-prime mortgage holders triggered the initial crisis in 2008, and that governments around Europe must now live within their means in the face of unsustainable and immoral budget deficits – debtors of all varieties are increasingly stigmatised.

The morality of debt, or more specifically, the sense of moral obligation to pay one’s debts, relates to the social origins of the credit contract: the word credit means ‘trust’, and contract means ‘drawn together’. Debt is a promise to pay based on trust between the lender and the borrower. It is widely accepted that taking something, making a promise to pay it back and then not doing so is morally wrong. The morality of debt permeates almost all aspects of social life; the debtor is beholden to the creditor and is judged morally by their peers on their ability to service their debt. Quite unlike the ‘effort-reward’ contract of work, debt entails concepts of guilt and repayment, which leads to social, economic, and political ‘capture’ and ‘extraction’ [1]. There is ample anthropological evidence to show that cultural practices of debt are varied and changeable, not universal [2]. In the aftermath of the financial crisis we see clearly how debt obligations are not uniformly enforced. Occupy and other social movements have tried to politicise debt through drawing on a number of unconventional methods and techniques, such as debt strikes. Syriza won the recent Greek election on the promise to end austerity. Yet for many members of the British public the more modest aim remains simply ‘get out’ of the debts that tie down their households and burden their everyday lives. A very conservative estimate of outstanding consumer
debt is £165 billion in 2014.

It is in this context that new online spaces for debtors have emerged. A number of internet forums – notably Money Saving Expert and Consumer Action Group, both sprawling online communities in their own right – contain substantial spaces for debtors to share and discuss their experiences. And these spaces really are substantial. Consumer Action Group, for instance, has 32 sub-forums under the heading of ‘Debt problems – including homes/ mortgages’. These discussion spaces include ‘Debt Collection Industry’, ‘Enforcement Agencies’, ‘Home Repossessions’, ‘Debt management and Debt self-help’, ‘General Debt Issues’ – plus around 10 sub-sub-forums dedicated to payday lending alone. Even Mumsnet has its own dedicated series of debt threads dedicated to ‘those who feel they are drowning and want a way out’. Each forum and sub-forum has its own unique cast of characters, dominant members, etiquette, norms and purpose. They are all in some way united in providing space for debtors to share tips and advice, offer moral and emotional support, and even – indirectly – begin to sow the seeds of collective action.

These online forums offer something different to conventional debtor support. And because they sometimes flag up the ‘unauthorised paths’ that debtors can take in dealing with creditors, these spaces have a clear political edge to them despite few instances of clear politically-driven action. The category of ‘everyday politics’ best captures this dimension. In this sense, there are similarities and contrasts with E.P. Thompson’s famous analysis of the moral economy of the eighteenth century English crowd in which he demonstrates that food riots were driven by a collective sense of unfairness. While online debt forums are still far from making the authorities ‘prisoners of the people’ – as Thompson put it in his food riot case study – they can, however, illuminate the nature of creditor-debtor relations in the twenty-first century and, ultimately, cast light on the nature of everyday politics itself.

E.P. Thompson and ‘everyday politics’

E.P. Thompson’s landmark article ‘The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century’ was part of his wider oeuvre on the history of the English working classes [3]. Thompson was critical of those who explained food riots in eighteenth century England as the result of deprivation and hunger. By reducing riots to a result of hunger and therefore of basic stimuli, these explanations allowed little agency for the reasoning and morality of the ordinary working class people – another instance of what Thompson famously criticised as ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’. For Thompson, the ordinary people of the time were neither stupid nor driven purely by basic factors like hunger or bodily impulses. On the contrary, the rioters were informed by the belief that they were defending the rights and customs underpinning a moral consensus in the wider community. This was grounded in a shared view of how the economy ought to work, and the rights and responsibilities of different market actors in relation to that view. This is what Thompson named the ‘moral economy’ of the poor. It was outrage at the deviance from these norms manifested in deprivation and hunger that drove the rioters’ actions.

This theoretical perspective helps explain how the riots unfolded as they did. Rioters did not simply steal bread or grain. They also trashed machinery to make a point about unfairness, or forced traders to sell at a fair price. This latter action involved intervening in the price mechanism privileged by classical political economy in order to reorient prices in line with a consensus over what they ought to be. By reorienting the prices of goods, Thompson argues – in a very powerful claim – that ‘the authorities were, in some measure, the prisoners of the people’.

For Thompson, this sort of action was neither political nor non-political. His implication is that action is political only when it is intrinsically motivated and intended to be so, but that paradoxically this action was political because it changed, intentionally or otherwise, the terms of a given set of power relations. Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet helps make sense of this tension through his three-tier definition of politics [4]. Kerkvliet defines politics in a relatively straightforward way: it is about the control, allocation, production and use of resources – but also the values and ideas that justify or contest those activities. On the basis of this definition, Kerkvliet distinguishes between three different types of politics: official, advocacy, and everyday. Official politics involves authorities in organisations ‘making, implementing, changing, contesting, and evading’ policies over the allocation of resources, while advocacy politics involves the intentional and direct attempts at influencing authorities and thus the way in which resources are allocated. In contrast to these, everyday politics involves ‘people embracing, complying with, adjusting, and contesting norms and rules regarding authority over, production of, or allocation of resources’. The key way in which everyday politics differs from official and advocacy politics is the lack of organisation and often seemingly non-political nature of the actions in question. In this schema, Thompson’s riots are clearly political, albeit of the ‘everyday’ variety.

This concept of everyday politics provides a means for investigating and understanding the role of new online spaces of debt resilience. To expand, Kerkvliet offers the following ‘humdrum’ example of everyday politics:

A few years ago, a newly landscaped part of the campus of my university included paved walkways that pedestrians and bicyclists were supposed to use. After a few months, however, a couple of unauthorised paths began to appear, cutting across the carefully planted and tended lawn. Apparently these paths were the creation of pedestrians and bicyclists who deviated from the designated walkways. The paths are a political expression – they use a resource, land, out of line with how university authorities intended it to be used. Whether the paths’ creators are resisters or not is hard to know. Persistent research could probably find out. Quite likely, many pedestrians and bicyclists simply find the paths more convenient, helping them get more rapidly from one place to another. Their action – using the unauthorised path – is everyday politics of the modification type. For others, however, using – maybe even initiating – the paths may be deliberate opposition – a form of everyday resistance – to the authorities who designed the designated walkways and had them built. In any event, the paths exist, altering what authorities had intended for the land. When the university office in charge of campus grounds first noticed the infractions, it instructed grounds keepers to place small barriers at both ends of each path, hoping that would force people to use the authorised walk ways. But people soon started going around those obstacles to use the paths. Recently, those paths have been paved, making them even more convenient for users. University authorities apparently gave up trying to eliminate the deviant use of the grounds; instead, they incorporated everyday users’ creations into the official landscape design.

This can be read as both an example of and as an analogy for everyday politics. As an example, it is a relatively straightforward instance of how those without official or advocacy power can initiate change against the wishes and interests of the authorities. It also works as an analogy. Through the distinction between modification and resistant forms of everyday politics, Kerkvliet implies that action should not be categorised as political on the back of motives. It should instead be categorised as political on the basis that it transforms, challenges or alters – in no matter how small a fashion – the practice of power relations. It therefore shows how through everyday politics and the collective use of ‘unauthorised pathways’, those without the formal authority or informal influence over official political processes still have a capacity to influence political and economic change through rejecting or accepting the actions of the powerful.

Debtors’ unauthorised pathways?

What are the prospects for the emergence of unauthorised pathways in creditor-debtor relations in contemporary consumer finance? There are two key comparisons to make between debtors and Kerkvliet’s pedestrians and Thompson’s hungry crowd that can help shed light on this question. First, in both Kerkvliet’s and Thompson’s examples, collective or mimetic action is assisted because both sets of social relations are played out in scenes that involve a degree of face-to-face interaction with people in the same situation within a physical environment. To again mix analogy and example, Kerkvliet’s pedestrians may be more likely to take the unauthorised paths if the grass along the new shortcuts is visibly trodden and worn down. This is rarely the case for contemporary debtors. Indebtedness is often experienced as an individual or private problem linked to embarrassment and shame. Debtors therefore tend to live in isolation with very limited organisational links to or networks with one another. The private or personal nature of debt means that few debtors know exactly how to manage problem debt or deal with aggressive creditors because coping strategies are not widely communicated. This helps prevent the emergence of an alternative everyday politics of debt management or resistance. 

Second, in both the Kerkvliet and Thompson examples, a relatively unambiguous shared interest assists the emergence of everyday politics. The nature of debt again makes this complicated. Debt is widely considered an individual problem that is the fault of the borrower. As a result debtors are judged uniquely and often are implicitly placed upon an implicit scale of deservingness. While there are known schemes to resist foreclosure and eviction in the US (such as City Life/Vida Urbana), there is no equivalent for debtors in general. In contrast, one cannot legitimately blame the eighteenth century English crowd for demanding food through riots when large swathes of the population simply could not afford to eat at market prices. A clearly shared interest – affordable food that corresponded to a shared sense of fairness – emerged. Given the moral and legal obligations that accompany their relationships to finance, there is no clear equivalent for debtors. Combined with the stigma involved in talking publicly about the issue, it can be difficult to find peers who might be able to commiserate and offer support. This helps prevent the emergence of a shared interest among creditors as a general group.

In the absence of interaction in a physical environment or an explicit shared interest, everyday forms of debtor politics are less common. In practice, debtors rely heavily on conventional and mainstream sources for support and debt advice, which, although helpful and important, do not necessarily challenge the creditor-debtor relationship and can help keep debt a private issue. These services range from not-for-profit services, as provided by the Citizens Advice service, National Debtline, Payplan and StepChange, to direct forms of advice provided by government agencies (for instance local authority housing or welfare departments), to commercial debt management companies. These various organisations can provide helpful services to those in need. This includes offering advice, explaining relevant rules, regulations and potential courses of action a debtor can take, referring clients to third party forms of support, and, in particular in the case of the not-for-profit organisations, templates of letters for debtors to adapt when communicating with creditors and other organisations. Both commercial debt management services (who charge a fee) and National Debt Line, Payplan and StepChange (who do not) also offer debtors that meet qualifying criteria Debt Management Plans, in which the organisation takes responsibility for negotiating with creditors directly and then for collecting and distributing repayments, as well as advice on other options.

A number of the services offered by not-for-profit organisations involve ‘self-help’ approaches and are thus, irrespective of any specific advice offered, ultimately reliant on an individual’s own skills, competencies, and energy. A recent report highlighted a number of problematic practices in the industry including: confusion around fees, a blur between ‘advice’ and ‘sales’, companies discouraging debtors from using not-for-profit services, consumers being encouraged to manipulate their reported levels of income and expenditure, debtors being hurried through the process, and debtors being pressured to take out further financial products with the debt management company or partner organisation. [5] Advice follows debt advice norms; this includes recommending that debtors maintain contact with creditors, ostensibly in order to prevent the escalation of debt collection activities, the increased likelihood of legal action, and increased interest and fees.

Debt resistance?

Conventional debtor support largely provides routes of action that generally follow paths authorised and sanctioned by the powerful. What the online forums can offer, in contrast, is tacit knowledge and wisdom gained from experience on how to create new and divergent paths in a different direction. In this respect, the forums offer a form of black market knowledge that can’t be gained from the conventional marketplace of support. By creating a public space to share these experiences, the forums help chip away at power imbalances through propagating unauthorised paths of action. They therefore show the possibility of instigating more widespread and deeper changes in creditor-debtor relations.

The forums are not hotbeds of political radicalism. Instead, they are about helping people out. Underpinning the advice and recommendations is a sense of what fair creditor-debtor relations ought to look like. On the one hand, the paths of action suggested are normally procedurally valid – resilience strategies often involve using consumer legislation and usually stay within the letter of the law. On the other hand, they remain ethically fair – the empty but ostensibly authoritative threats made by debt collection agencies are routinely considered as ethically wrong. As a result, although the majority of posters are interested in minimising the stress of their own ordeals, the cacophony of tacit knowledge contained on the forums in combination with the individual actions they lead to could snowball into something like collective political action without recourse to official or advocacy politics – a bit like E.P. Thompson’s hungry but ethical and reasonable peasants.

Although the forums rarely encourage evading debt, experienced posters do often suggest that debtors avoid paying their debts. In line with the moral economy of the forums, this is usually only acceptable when the actions of creditors are considered ethically unjust in line with shared expectations. When members decry the actions of creditors as unfair – examples include long time lapses in chasing a paltry sum, or pushing the boundaries of the guarantor institution – then forms of debt avoidance are suggested. These remain procedurally valid and avoid criminality, and therefore may involve making token £2 monthly repayments or ceasing all communication other than by formal letter. While it would be a clear exaggeration to follow Thompson in suggesting that the authorities are the ‘prisoners of the people’ regarding problem personal debt, these examples involve more than just a confrontational and symbolic gesture of rebellion. In these instances, the advice of the forums impacts – albeit in a very small way for now – the income streams of debt collection agencies, creditors, and therefore the financial industry as a whole. Like Thompson’s example, economic relations are therefore being incrementally altered to bring them in line with shared understandings of how the economy ought to work. This may be a drop in the ocean, but it is nevertheless significant in the individual lives of those struggling with debt. It also indicates how these online spaces have the potential to change the nature of creditor-debtor relations.

For now, then, the political and economic impact of these forums is very modest. Creditors are not yet ‘prisoners of the people’, as in Thompson’s example. Yet by bringing together the everyday experience, expertise and individual resistance strategies of a wide range of debtors, these online spaces are beginning to identify and create some of the ‘unauthorised pathways’ available for debtors who are feeling the strain. An alternative moral economy of debt is possible. When we denaturalise the assumption that all debtors must pay back all their debts, we can open up spaces. Our recent report, The New Politics of Indebtedness, calls for a government supported debt-restructuring programme to act as a centralised relief fund for those seriously struggling to service their debts. Assistance would include direct support to households in the form of debt forgiveness, interest-rate subsidies or tax incentives. In lieu of official or advocacy political action, these new online spaces and other forms of everyday politics can still help tip the balance of power back in favour of the powerless. 

Liam Stanley is a Lecturer in the Department of Politics at the University of Sheffield. Joe Deville is a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Centre for the Study of Invention and Social Process at Goldsmiths. Johnna Montgomerie is a Lecturer in the Department of Politics at Goldsmiths.

Funded by the Communities and Culture Network+, this article draws on the Digital Technologies of Debt Resilience research project. For more details, download the associated report The New Politics of Indebtedness



[1] Lazzarato, M. 2012, The Making of the Indebted Man, Amsterdam: Semiotext(e).

[2] Graeber, D. (2011) Debt: The First 5,000 Years, New York: Melville House.

[3] Thompson, E. P. (1971) 'The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century', Past & Present 50 (Feb. 1971), pp 76-136.

[4] Kerkvliet, B. J. (2009) 'Everyday politics in peasant societies (and ours)', The Journal of Peasant Studies 36 (1), pp 227-43.

[5] Rowe, B., Holland, J., Nash, R., Hann, A., and Brown, T (2014), Consumer Credit Research: Payday Loans, Logbook Loans and Debt Management Services. London: ESRO / Financial Conduct Authority, available at http://www.fca.org.uk/static/documents/research/fca-esro-final-report-2014.pdf

 

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